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Journey: visualising peace through gaming

    Fig. 1 – The Traveller in front of a statue of the past

    Designed by ThatGameCompany (USA, 2012), Journey is a console game that has gained recognition thanks to its emotional and thought-provoking gameplay. It has won multiple awards, including ‘Game of the Year’ at the 16th Annual D.I.C.E.

    The game’s plot follows a robed traveller on their quest to reach a light at the top of a mountain. The player travels through old ruins that are revealed to be their own civilization before it collapsed as a result of war. These sequences are depicted by a larger, white-robed figure, an implied ancestor and ‘ghost’ of this past civilisation. It is a world that is still suffering from the aftereffects of conflict, despite the war having technically ended. The traveller’s journey through the game turns into a metaphor for healing from conflict trauma, with the final light in the mountain symbolising an ‘inner peace’. To strengthen this, the gameplay itself is very passive and removed from conflict, with the player’s controls limited to moving, flying and making chirping noises.

    One of the most striking features of this game is the way that it narrates and generates a sense of human interconnectivity. As its Director, Jenova Chen, has explained, the aim was ‘to create a game where people felt they are connected with each other, to show the positive side of humanity in them’. Research has shown how important dialogue and a sense of connectivity are to sustainable peacebuilding and the healing of conflict traumas.[1] Many videogames promote egocentric or competitive ways of interacting with the virtual environment and the people who populate it, but Journey stands out for the opposite. It is a multiplayer game which allows figures to meet and help each other as they try to reach their physical and metaphorical destinations: the light at the top of the mountain and healing from trauma.

    That said, Journey‘s multiplayer features appear quite unique in the world of gaming. Instead of the player intentionally connecting with another online user, the game automatically connects those who happen to be playing at the same time.[2] Each player enters into this shared space, ensuring that it is no longer a solo game, but a shared experience with another individual. With the lack of a chat function, the only way the players can communicate is through environmental interactions, such as walking around in the snow to draw hearts (Fig. 2), and making chime noises. These chime noises do not only act a verbal interaction with the other players; they also work to ‘charge up’ each others cloaks, allowing their cloaks to glow and the players to fly. Journey thus inspires positive player interaction by incentivising help for each other as a way to succeed in the game. In fact, the players are not just engaging with another, but physically ‘enlightening’ each other. This is made even more powerful through the game’s transnational communication. Due to the removal of language-based communication, the players are able to connect to each other without the barrier of a language. Instead of understanding through words, the players are connecting through this shared experience and acts of kindness. As a result, the game’s message of post-conflict transformation and peace-building is one of collaboration; as a player, you help another to peace through an empathetic connection, a bond that is not explicitly through verbal understanding, but a greater spiritual and bodily connection.

    Fig. 3 – Soothing environment of Journey

    The medium of the video game is itself an interactive form that can inspire emotional and bodily empathy and engagement. As scholars like Katherine Isbister have shown, video games are often designed to inspire positive emotions and connect us empathetically to an avatar’s motives, goals, and methods. In such ways, video games are able to encourage a heightened level of engagement, which can then be used to interest players in social issues.[3] Journey specifically uses techniques such as ‘haptic visuality’ to further connect the player’s body with the avatars. ‘Haptic visuality’ is when a piece of visual media focuses on tactility (e.g. long lingering shots on sand) in a way that appeals to the audience’s senses and memory of that tactility, creating a kinaesthetic connection between the screen and body.[4] The player is no longer just watching a screen, but emersed into an environment through their senses in a way that triggers bodily empathy.[5] This focus on emotional connection is even found within the music. Composed and orchestrated by Austin Wintory, the soundtrack for Journey won several awards and has been noted for its use of emotional movement. Tracks such as ‘Road of Trials’ can be seen using notes that inspire emotions of happiness and hope, something which further involves the player and centres their emotional response.[6]

    Journey is work of art which exemplifies how videogames can be used to create empathy between the player and the avatar, as well as extending this connection to the building of empathy between two strangers. With its quite passive gameplay and peaceful environment, the game prompts reflection on post-conflict experiences and encourages a form of peace-building that focuses on human connections and environmental contact or reconnection to heal trauma. Games such as Journey not only get us thinking about peace and peace-making in new ways; they also show the valuble contribution which the medium of gaming itself can play in peace-building conversations and even education.

    What Do You Think?

    • Have you come across other video games like this?
    • How do you think interactive media like videogames can shape how we visualise peace and even contribute to peace-building?
    • What does this game teach us about the importance of personal healing and inner peace to wider peace-building?
    • How important are human connections in peace-building relative to, for example, legal frameworks for peace?
    • Does it matter that this game is set in a fantasy world? What value can fantasy environments and fictional narratives have in developing our understanding of and engagement with peace-making?
    • What does this game tell us about the importance of accessibility (e.g. via the removal of language barriers) in interactive media that engage ordinary people in peace-building practices?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy Inner peace, Om Shanti – An invocation for peace – ॐ शान्तिः, Pride: peace in social justice and the power of solidarity and items with the tag ‘co-operation‘.

    Zoë du Bois, May 2022


    [1] Peace through intergroup contact theory can be seen explored in Tam, T. et al. (2007) The Impact of Intergroup Emotions on Forgiveness in Northern Ireland. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations,10(1), pp. 119-135.

    [2] See this link for a showing two players connecting and how in-game communication can work.

    [3] For more on empathy in video games, see Isbister, Katherine. (2016) How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design. Isbister specifically talked about how Journey creates an intimate connection between player and avatar in Chapter 4 (128-151). For more on emotional play and the way gameplay inspires real emotions in war tactics, see Engberg-Pedersen, Anders. (2017). Flat Emotions: Maps and Wargames as Emotional Technologies. Visualizing War: Emotions, Technologies, Communities, pp. 59-78.

    [4] See this link for the opening of the game and the way the camera focuses on the sand texture and sun heat waves.

    [5] For more on Haptic visuality, see Marks, Laura. (2002) The Memory of Touch. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses; and Bruno, Giuliana. (2002) The Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film.

    [6] For more on music and emotion see Egermann, Hauke. (2013) Empathy and Emotional Contagion as a Link Between Recognized and felt Emotions in Music Listening. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal; and Harrer, G & Harrer, H. (1977) Music, Emotion and Autonomic Function. Wiener medizinische Wochenschrift. Ed. MacDonald Critchley.

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